This is a poem I wrote back in 2005, for my Hearing dog Willow:
THE REST OF ME
Sometimes when I am away,
I find myself longing for you like a lover.
I want to bend your ears,
feel the pads of your feet pushing against my thighs.
You lick tears before they even come.
You sit close to me when I am
stuck in bed with bodily aches.
And you know the greatest medicine of all
is your head, resting heavy,
across my stomach.
Instead I am sitting on a jagged gray rock,
the wind trying to steal my hair
or these pages.
Pulling at me as you have done.
I am here because I can fly.
I can put an ocean between us and
you are left, staring
into the sea from the other side.
While on Commenole Beach in Ireland, I hold
handfuls of sand in my fists because
it is the color of your fur.
In the deep brown of your eyes,
widely searching my own, I see—my body:
the home you guard with the passion
of twenty panting lovers. Your tail: pumping
like a heartbeat.
But I call you
as I’m supposed to.
I call you by your given name. Though
when I write such words to myself,
such prayers, I call you—
And I know you as
The Rest of Me.
I spent all of Willow’s life leaving and returning to him often, because I couldn’t be without a dog and I couldn’t stop traveling either. My parents, who always had dogs, gratefully accepted Willow as their grandson and always took care of him while I was in India or Kenya or Ireland for months at a time.
When Willow died last year, on August 1st, I felt myself adding up all the months I spent away from him. It broke my heart that out of his almost 11 years, I spent a total of 2.5 of them away from him. Now I’m more understanding of my own needs. I need a Hearing dog, I need that companionship and the social comfort they give me, but I also need to immerse myself in other cultures.
I’ve come to understand that it’s okay for our dogs to be shared between us—that only means they have more people that love them, and more people they can love in return.
I have more to say about Hearing dogs, and dogs, but I’d like to keep this post a dedication to Willow, the greatest dog that ever lived, who will always be “the rest of me.”
I’ll never stop longing for him, I’ll never stop feeling the shadow of his fur against my legs when I run, and I’ll never stop seeing his face between the trees of a forest, or popping up over the marshes, eyes on fire.
I suppose there are worse things to be haunted by.
I was once asked during a reading if some of my fiction novel, Makara, actually happened to me.
My answer was complex, because some exciting events in the novel were stories that a friend told me about his own life, and many of the locations were places I’ve lived in for a period of days to years. And the myths I stole from? The myths were real one day, long, long ago, weren’t they?!
In all honesty, all of my characters were probably people I knew at some point in my life, and it’s like my brain was a blender, and I threw in a little of my dad, an ex lover, a close friend, mixed it up and got one character. Then I did another blend for someone else. I don’t always know I’m writing about specific people at all—until someone I am close to notices it, and then tells me.
I love writing fiction (and poetry), because we can be artists with our memories. We can write very close to a real story, but surround it with something different, another country or make it happen to an old god or goddess. We can do anything with our writing. I believe fiction is more true than non-fiction, or memoir, because we aren’t limited by our realities, and our emotions themselves can be allowed to speak unrestrained.
One of my favorite books as a college student was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, where he often blurs fact and fiction. He wrote an amazing passage about killing someone, then later, he actually admitted that he didn’t kill anyone in Vietnam, but his experience was so vividly horrific, that it FELT like he did kill someone. He describes that feeling as “story-truth” in these quotes from the book:
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
“It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite; he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.”
His words were—and are—incredibly powerful to me. I realize that through my fiction and my poetry, I am perhaps telling a deeper “memoir” of my life than the actual memoirs I’ve written. If you ask two or three siblings to tell a story about the same event of their childhood, you will probably get two or three different stories that may not even appear related. I don’t think any of us truly remembers things that happened in our past accurately. But I believe the way we remember is more true to our hearts and minds, because that’s the scene that plays over and over in our heads, that’s the memory we are haunted by, that’s the memory we grow and learn from, that’s the memory we believe.
What O’Brien is talking about when he describes how one of his characters liked to “heat up the truth” is the importance of writing an exaggerated story in order to make the reader FEEL the intensity of a moment without actually being there in the jungle with him. I’ve done the same thing in my own writing, where I describe something with over-dramatization so that it brings the action right into someone’s mind and makes them feel what the characters are feeling. Jeanette Winterson does this via magical realism in The Passion, when she describes a woman sneaking into her lover’s apartment to steal back her own heart. We don’t physically give our hearts away when we fall in love, but we certainly do it emotionally. Magical realism is all about emotional truth. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez uses magical realism like a literary surgeon:
“He pleaded so much that he lost his voice. His bones began to fill with words.”
“Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”
* * *
I believe in all stories—even the ones about dragons, unicorns, or shape-shifters, because they may be fantastical or unrealistic, but they come from someone’s memories. All of our myths and fairy tales come from a blend of our lives, our dreams, and our nightmares. We are emotional creatures who are rarely limited by our bodies. Through our stories, we tell each other about what has already happened to us and what we wish would happen or what we don’t wish would happen. That, to me, is much more valuable than simple facts, or what O’Brien calls “happening-truth.” I want the “story-truth,” the emotional tales we can only tell through characters, through dogs or gods, through twisting the facts into something we can sing, weep over, or shout out in prayer, because we’ve taken a memory and we’ve transformed it into a legend.
Four books you should read if you liked this post:
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
My first dog, Willow, was named for my favorite tree and favorite character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was twenty-one when I adopted him at 8-weeks from the Concord NH SPCA. He was like a “son” to me, just as important as any human being. I trained him as my Hearing Dog when he was five, and throughout his life, he helped me to feel less anxious in social situations (where I can’t hear the words around me) and he helped remind me that I feel part-dog way down in my soul.
Willow was by my side every moment of my adult life, except when I was traveling abroad, and sometimes I took that for granted. I assumed he would live at least fifteen years, not almost eleven. I assumed he couldn’t possibly get cancer, or die before my child would be able to remember how wonderfully they connected, that Willow was his brother, not just a dog.
But last year, he did get cancer, suddenly, and months later, he died in my arms.
I made photo story books to tell my son Ronan about Willow’s life and their experiences together. I made collages of Willow photos to hang around our home. In every room, there is a picture of Willow. These things are necessary. They are soothing. But they don’t make the pain any less. They don’t bring back the smell of his paws, or the softness of his tongue licking my tears, my lips, my cheeks, or the wisdom in his eyes.
Willow understood me in a way that no one else has ever understood me. And now he’s gone, at least physically. Like our home, No Smoking, Willow has left a great gulf inside me that will never be filled. In the language of one of my favorite books, The God of Small Things, there is a Willow-shaped-hole in me. There is a No Smoking-shaped-hole, too. But these vacancies are inescapable. As we grow and age, things around us disappear, crumble, and die. Yet still, we have to go on growing and learning and finding other ways of being happy, other creatures to love. The holes, the things that haunt us, make us better writers and probably better humans. I have to think of it that way, or else, I’ll crawl into those holes and just stay depressed. Sometimes, I do that, but I do my best to turn those holes into tunnels with light at the end. An opening to crawl back out into the world. Because there are millions of beautiful things out there, a million ways to love. But remembering is important, too, even if it makes us despair. In writing, every emotion, every thought, every desire, is a tool we can use to connect to someone else, to share our sorrows, our ecstasies, and to help others feel less alone in the world the way that Willow made me feel less alone.
In the vein of sharing my brilliant, beautiful soul-dog and son with you, here are some of my favorite memories of Willow:
The 38′ wooden Piver trimaran that I bought and lived on for almost a year was called No Smoking. She happened to be docked at the same marina where my partner and I lived aboard our first sailboat, Serenity, a 36′ wooden monohull.
We fell in love with the idea of living on a boat with more than one hull.
“Trimaran” and “catamaran” just sound so much grander than “monohull.” They sound like promises, dreams, or flying carpets.
My partner, Rob, and I got married in September of 2010, just one month after we bought No Smoking. A month later, in October, we left our current home (Block Island, RI) and sailed south, aiming for Florida and then the Bahamas.
Sailing, like writing, is a blind journey. You can start off with an “outline” or a “plan,” but the ocean and the creative flow of the human mind, often throw the wildest obstacles into our paths.
I kept a blog of our sailing trip south HERE.
Read it with kindness, and I regret to inform you that as of now, it is still unfinished. The end of that fateful journey was our beloved No Smoking shipwrecking onto a peninsula beach along the coast of New Jersey. We were hurrying back to Block Island, and I was pregnant. We took risks, but with sailing, like writing, there are always risks. Our GPS and nautical charts weren’t up to date enough to show us that beach.
There’s a lot of reasons why we shipwrecked. And the blame? Was it the ocean? The wind? The shoaling? Wrong information? Rash decisions? Yes to everything. It was our fault as much as it was the fault of the sea, because sailing, like writing, is it’s own force, but we have to be responsible for ourselves, too. Responsible for our mistakes.
We now live in the bottom floor of a log cabin in the woods, which would have been my greatest fantasy as recently as five years ago. But five years ago, I had not yet known what it was like to sleep in the cradle of the sea itself, feeling the sound the waves made as they slapped against our hulls. I had not yet watched sunset after sunset (and a few sunrises) reflected in the shining waters around me.
The woods are still magical to me, but they’re not the same as the ocean. When I am on the water, I miss trees, but they don’t haunt me. The sea haunts me even when I’m cruising, because it just goes on seemingly forever, and inside the sea are creatures larger than our boat. And they are always there – floating through the abyss, devouring plants or each other. We sailed through the Gulf Stream for a while, where the bottom of the sea was thousands of feet below us. My writer brain was perpetually, deliciously haunted by the animals I imagined (and often, too, by the possibility of the mythological—mermaids and selchies, gods and goddesses, sea dragons).
Now, I sit by a window with a view of tall pines and maple trees, but inside my mind, I am remembering scenes like this: